Interview: Mario Faria, chief data officer, ServiceSource

The first ever CDO in Brazil talks about the adoption of Big Data in the country, the opportunities and challenges faced by Brazilian business managers around the efficient use of advanced data analytics.
Written by Mark Hillary, Contributor on

To understand Big Data in Brazil who better to talk to than the first ever Chief Data Officer (CDO) in Latin America? Mario Faria was appointed to the CDO role at credit information provider Boa Vista in São Paulo back in 2011 after time spent in industry at IBM and also as a university professor focused on strategy and social media.

Faria spent most of this year working on Big Data strategies for the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and he recently joined customer retention specialists ServiceSource as CDO.

He was not only the first CDO in Latin America, but his profile has allowed him to explore the use of Big Data from an academic perspective as well as from within various organizations. We talked to Faria in the first interview since his appointment to ServiceSource was confirmed.

What is the importance of big data? How can a CDO talk to the business managers and get them to appreciate this?

Mario Faria: Every company should be looking at three perspectives. How the business itself works, the technology you are using, and the data you need. The data has to be looked at in a perspective that brings together the business and the technology. You need to think about what data is required, what is the data value chain and topics such as how can I use my data to better segment my customers and improve my marketing? I see the role of the CDO now as the bridge-builders between the business world and the technology world.

Why shouldn’t the CIO look after the data?

MF: You should be describing what is your business problem – what works or does not work in your area of the business. Are you getting the best return on your campaigns or initiatives and then how can the data organization partner with the business area to solve their problems?

This applies to any area of the business – marketing, operations, sales, or finance all in the same way. It’s not the CIO who owns the data. The data owner is the highest-ranking officer in the company. That’s the CEO in a private company or the president in a public organization. In the USA, it is President Obama himself who is responsible for the data used by the government.

How does this apply to the Brazilian market?

MF: Brazil is a very interesting place. There is always a focus on the latest and greatest technology and they are very aware of what is happening in markets such as the USA. The big three industry disruptors - social media, cloud computing, mobile – are all happening in Brazil.

Brazil has 268m cell devices –more devices than the entire population of the country and that’s not even counting tablets. The CDO function and data organizations that do not belong to IT are not common yet. This is one of the key messages I have been trying to push all over the world – data is a business issue, not a technology issue.

Where is the CDO message being heard internationally?

MF: It’s not so much about markets or regions internationally. Really it’s more about the industry verticals. I do a lot of presentations around the world on this subject and it finally seems that many company leaders understand that if they put the data strategy in the hands of the CIO, they will fail miserably.

Retail and Financial Services are leading the way along with the media and new companies that are based on data right from the start – like Google and Facebook. When I joined Boa Vista three years ago, they brought me in as the CDO because the CEO really understood the value of data. He knew that if he wanted his business to succeed he would need to look in parallel at his offering, the technology the company can use, and the data.

Companies in Brazil like Itau now have a CDO and a quick search on LinkedIn will show you many more. Many of the companies in Brazil now looking at this issue, or with a CDO in place, have done it because they saw what we achieved at Boa Vista where I had sole responsibility as a data steward for the company and I was not answering to the CIO. It takes some guts from the company leaders to make this move. Not every company is mature enough to do it, but the ones who have done it can see the benefit of having a CDO.

What are the difficulties in talking to business managers within the organization who never had to with a CDO in the past?

MF: That is what I call the change management process. The hardest thing to change in a company is the behavior of managers who know how they achieved success in the past and do not want to change that process. And this is not just in Brazil – it applies to the USA too!

A CDO must have awesome communication skills or they will fail. You are going to be the new kid on the block and you need to establish boundaries and create a governance model that demonstrates how you will interact with IT, with compliance, and how to work with the internal customers in sales and marketing.

It takes a lot of energy and one common characteristic I have found in other CDOs is that all of us are very resilient people. We don’t take no for an answer. Our work is really hard and I am sure that this is exactly the same hard time that CIOs had when they first started appearing in the 80s.

Where is the easiest department to start selling internally so managers buy into the idea of working with a CDO?

MF: The easiest sell is where you have the most pain – and the biggest pain is where a company is losing money. If you can find this then you will be able to build a case.

Peter Aiken’s book ‘The case for the Chief Data Officer’ is an excellent read. It really explores the economic benefits of having a CDO and the first place that this book will be launched in a language other than English is the Portuguese version for Brazil. I believe that this shows how eager companies in Brazil are to explore data in this way.

Does it take a long time to cross the chasm to becoming a data-led organization and how can you carry the management with you?

MF: It takes around two years to build a data organization in any company. If you are really serious then you need to build up policies and operations around data strategy, data acquisition, data operations, analytics, governance, quality, privacy and so on. It takes time and investment and the CDO will help to implement all of these areas, but it is a journey.

Making it work is not just a question of money; it’s more about company maturity, but the results can start coming sooner than the two years I mentioned. You can create a program of quick wins allowing you show gains in the first 100 days and then have something new you can deliver every week. But you need to accept that to build a powerful data organization that benefits all areas of the company will take time.

What was your experience when arriving at Boa Vista in Brazil?

MF: My first week was great – everyone was my friend and slapping my back and welcoming me. Then in the second week they were screaming at me, asking why the quality of our data was so bad? Managers were saying that they were losing business because of the poor quality of data.

I took my team to a room and told them that we needed to build credibility internally. We needed to show our internal customers that our data is great. We needed to work with the IT team to fix the systems and work alongside the sales team so they would have great data to work with.

I implemented a 100-day initiative to give us room to breathe. This aimed to capture a lot of data benchmarks and three months later we had a big sales convention where I showed them some of the data and the business managers were supportive of the changes we were making. Make sure that you capture these benchmarks early on so that you know your data realities – not just perceptions.

Your new role at ServiceSource is focused on customer retention, but every executive knows that it costs more to get new customers than just looking after existing ones, so how can data help with this?

MF: It’s true that everyone knows this about customer retention, but go and look at most companies. How many customer databases do they have? I recently changed my phone number and I called my bank and let them know, but other parts of the same bank – like the credit card team – were calling me using the old number. This is the kind of thing that ServiceSource is really good at – we can build a methodology for companies to use that helps them work better with their existing customers.

My job is around taking data to the next level – exploring the market and how it will work five years from now because data is the new oil. Data is the oil of the twenty-first century, but you don’t put oil in your car, you use gasoline. You manufacture products using plastic, not oil. The CDO can explore the data a company has and determine how best to refine it in a way that creates the most economic benefit.

Having worked as a CDO in both the USA and Brazil, are there any specific differences about the market in Brazil?

MF:  Brazilian executives come to the US and Europe to attend the best business schools in the world – I don’t see a difference in executive talent at this point in time.  Many Brazilian companies have very mature processes and are using international standards such as US accounting. Ten years about I would have said that Brazil is lagging behind, but look now Brazilian companies own brands like Budweiser! Brazil has matured a lot.


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